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Taliban and U.S. Start New Round of Talks in Qatar

KABUL, Afghanistan — American and Taliban negotiators began a new round of peace talks Wednesday in Doha, Qatar, aimed at securing a lasting peace agreement that would include Taliban guarantees regarding terrorism and a phased withdrawal of American troops.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter early Wednesday that the talks — the sixth round between American and Taliban officials — had begun in Doha, the Qatari capital.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy leading the American delegation, has said the talks will ultimately focus on four main issues. They include troop withdrawal; guarantees against terrorism; talks between the Taliban and the American-supported government of Afghanistan to establish a path toward political settlement; and a lasting cease-fire.

The Taliban have refused so far to meet with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it illegitimate. A planned visit to Doha by an Afghan delegation that included government officials collapsed April 26 after disagreements over the composition of the delegation, which was to meet informally with Taliban leaders.

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The chief American envoy to the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Taliban had agreed to a session for the two sides to get to know one another. They insisted that government officials attend only in their own personal capacity, but Mr. Ghani’s government pushed to have them attend as government representatives.

Afghan officials say Mr. Ghani is troubled by being frozen out of the negotiations as important agreements are being structured. The talks come in the middle of a fierce presidential campaign, with some of Mr. Ghani’s rivals proposing an interim government. The Afghan president has insisted on continuing with elections, which have been repeatedly delayed but are now scheduled for September.

Mr. Khalilzad has said that he hopes to reach a final peace agreement before the elections.

In the meantime, Mr. Ghani on Monday convened a traditional grand council assembly, known as a loya jirga, to discuss peace for Afghanistan. About 3,000 delegates from around the country, selected in a process dominated by Mr. Ghani’s supporters, are meeting this week to reach a consensus on peace and a postwar Afghanistan. Their decisions are not legally binding.

One of the issues likely to be discussed in Doha this time is a fine-tuning of the Taliban pledge to prevent terrorist groups from staging attacks from Afghan territory. The State Department said in a statement on April 26 that the Taliban had committed to cut ties with Al Qaeda and to fight Islamic State loyalists in Afghanistan.

The war, now in its 18th year, began when the United States invaded Afghanistan after Al Qaeda leaders based in the country planned and executed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan during the traditional grand council assembly, known as a loya jirga, in Kabul on Monday.CreditRahmat Gul/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Negotiators are also likely to discuss mechanisms for enforcing the Taliban guarantees on terrorism. Separately, the Taliban are pressing for a timetable for American troop withdrawals so that they can present their membership with a significant achievement from their 17-year insurgency: the removal of what they consider occupying forces.

If an agreement on terrorism and troop withdrawal can be reached, American negotiators hope to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban together to begin negotiations on a postwar Afghanistan. Among the many issues they would discuss are a permanent cease-fire and mechanisms for enforcement.

Since peace talks began, fighting has accelerated as both sides have sought leverage at the peace talks.

For the first time since the United Nations began documenting civilian casualties a decade ago, more civilians were killed by American and Afghan government forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents, the U.N. announced on April 24. However, insurgents were responsible for more civilian casualties overall, which include deaths and injuries, the U.N. said.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. About 8,400 are training Afghan security forces and most of the rest are conducting counterterrorism missions against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Another 8,500 international troops are training Afghan forces.

Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American and former ambassador to Afghanistan, told an Afghan TV station over the weekend that fighting terrorism was the focus of the United States at the talks. He told Tolo News there would be no agreement without a permanent cease-fire and a commitment by all sides to end the war.

Source: NYT

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